By Sarah Sain
“What’s in it for me?”
The WIIFM philosophy is well known in the association world – and for good reason. While many of your members are proud to support your association’s mission and understand that you advocate for the industry as a whole, they also join for more personal reasons.
Associations today have to provide a customized experience to capture their members’ attention. According to the 2019 Association Communications Benchmarking Report, three in five (63 percent) survey respondents said they believe that they could improve member engagement if they would customize their member communications for different member groups, and deliver content and services that are targeted to where those members are in their journey with the association. Few, however, are actually doing it.
There are certainly challenges to overcome, but it is possible to create customized content for your members without a huge expenditure of staff time or an unexpected increase in your budget. The key? Use the technology available to you now and create a strategic communications plan.
Start with ‘Why?’
By customizing member communications for different groups across your entire membership, you’re letting your members know that you understand their needs and wants – no matter where they are in their member or professional journey.
Your members often join with a specific purpose or goal in mind. For your younger career members, it’s professional development and job opportunities while for long-term members it’s continuing education and leadership opportunities that allow them to help shape the future of the industry. Your members’ needs will evolve throughout the course of their membership. By creating communications that are targeted to where they are in their personal and professional lives, you’re telling them that you’re on that journey with them.
Above all, your association has to provide communications that are relevant if you want members to stay engaged. Starting with the content, services and events you offer, and then continuing on to the specific channels that will reach your intended audience, learn about the experience your members need and desire from you, and then deliver consistently.
Next, Decide ‘Who?’
Some associations have started to customize communications to member groups based on generation, career stage or tenure as a member, which are all good places to start. (And it’s logistically easy based on member data you should already have.) In the 2019 Benchmarking Report, 59 percent of associations said their communications to new members were either highly or somewhat customized, and 50 percent of associations said they customize for student members. Student and new members often are new not only to your association, but they’re also new to their careers and the industry. This means you have a huge opportunity to provide them with support and value at a time when they need it most, particularly through your career center and with social connections that can have a strong online component.
However, it’s important not to forget your mid-career and long-standing members, including retired and lifetime members. These members have been loyal to your associations for years, and providing them with communications customized for where they have grown in their careers is a way to show your loyalty in return. Because their needs have changed – in some cases over a few decades of membership – sending them the same communications that someone new to the industry receives will most definitely miss the mark. Gear long-time member communications more toward leadership and mentoring opportunities, so these members can play a larger role in creating a sustainable association for generations to come.
Another way you can – and should – customize for members is by member category. While your regular members often take center stage, don’t neglect your supplier and vendor members. Yes, they may be your association’s biggest sponsors and advertisers, but the communications this groups receives shouldn’t all be focused on their financial support of the association. These members also find information related to advocacy, industry standards and education important. They have their own career goals that your communications can help them meet.
You can take customization to the next level by creating communications based on the specific interactions members have had with your association. For example, members who attended your annual conference last year can receive one series of messages that touts the benefits of repeat attendance in the lead up to this year’s event based on having already experienced it in person, while non-attendees can receive different content that plays up the FOMO factor while imploring them to register.
Utilize Technology and Data
While all of this customization sounds like a huge undertaking, it doesn’t have to be if you use the technology that you either already have or that is available in the market right now. Unfortunately, most associations are still not fully leveraging technology to deliver a customized experience.
Respondents to the 2019 Benchmarking Report told us that they’re slightly less likely to utilize technology like their email marketing system (38 percent, down 4 percent from 2018) or member database/association management software (32 percent, down 1 percent) to assist in customizing for different audiences. Less than one in six survey respondents are utilizing their content management system, marketing automation system, career center or learning management system to customize, and all of those channels saw a decrease in their use over 2018.
An important first step is to review the member data you already have, particularly in your AMS. Your data has to be accurate in order for customizations to be effective. Before you start asking new questions and collecting new data, make sure that the data you currently have on file is clean and up-to-date. Having clean, updated member data will benefit your association in other ways in addition to customizing your communications (for example, using it to guide membership marketing efforts), so it really becomes everyone on the staff’s job to make sure the data you have to correct.
Once you have the right data in place and consolidated in one central hub, use your AMS to sort members by groups or recent actions. Use that information to give your member communications a personal touch. Using the technology and data at your fingertips will allow your association to develop a deeper, more meaningful relationship with your members.
It’s impossible to customize your communications if you don’t have a plan, and your plan needs to look beyond the traditional one-size-fits-all approach. So with nearly half (45 percent) of associations saying they have a single strategy for communicating with all members, it’s no surprise that they’re having trouble engaging with different groups of members.
A comprehensive communications strategy that addresses your goals for different member groups is going to be the key to your success. Your plan must include content you already have and new content you’re going to create, a clear idea of which member groups you’re going to communicate with, and the frequency with which you’ll reach out to each of those different groups. You’ll also need to decide (based on member preferences!) which communication channels you’ll be using to meet each audience where they are.
To create a comprehensive plan like the one we’ve just described, your association may need to take a step back and scan how you’re currently communicating with members. What are your email analytics telling you? Where are members engaging with you on social media (if in significant numbers)? What are members telling you through surveys and in-person interviews? Your members are telling you what communications are working, you just need to listen.
Finally, as you plan, make sure to leave the door open to the possibility of introducing something new to your portfolio, particularly if that content stream or channel will help you meet your goal of customizing member communications. While it may have seemed far-fetched a decade ago, associations are starting to embrace artificial intelligence as a way to deliver content that is targeted based on their members’ individual preferences and engagement patterns.
Customizing communications isn’t just the way of the future; it’s possible for your association now.
Sarah Sain is director of content, member communications for Naylor Association Solutions, where she provides content strategy leadership and consultation for associations across the country. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Download the 2019 Association Communications Benchmarking Report and find more benchmarking resources at resources.naylor.com/benchmarking. You can still take the 2019 survey today and download a Customized Report Card for your association at communicationsbenchmark.naylor.com.
Photo credit: iStock.com/manley099